The Allman Brothers Band opened their April 7th show at New York's Beacon Theater -- the fourteenth and next-to-last night of the 2007 edition of their annual spring residency here -- with a brilliant surprise: Dr. John's acid-voodoo crawl "I Walk on Gilded Splinters." Behind the organ, Gregg Allman growled like a man who has spent much of his life defying death and evil -- which he has. In the breakdown after the chorus, guitarist Derek Trucks emulated the zombie-angel chorale on Dr. John's original recording with swandive-bottleneck runs while Warren Haynes, also playing slide guitar, peeled off licks that sounded like the helpless cries of the undead.
It was a startling blast-off to a night that, in this town, at this time of year, is so easy to take for granted. The Allman Brothers Band have made themselves at home at the Beacon for three weeks each spring since 1989. It is a hallowed local tradition, and the closest thing anywhere, certainly in this century, to the aura and lift-off that the Allmans trademarked in their legendary 1971 appearances at Bill Graham's Fillmore East. Indeed, for the first dozen of those Beacon runs, it was enough to have the historic might of Live at Fillmore East resurrected in Allman's voice, the drum circle of Butch Trucks, Jaimoe and Marc Quinones, the bass-guitar authority of the late Allen Woody and (since 1997) Oteil Burbridge and the serpentine double-guitar ballet of (depending on the year) Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes, Jack Pearson, Jimmy Herring and Derek Trucks.
But the Allmans were, from the start, an improvising band, dedicated to the magic and lessons of change, and April 7th was a night of dynamic hairpin turns. The second-set overture "Don't Want You No More" -- the Spencer Davis Group cover that opened 1969's The Allman Brothers Band -- was followed not by its usual sister song, the blues "It's Not My Cross to Bear" but by the jazzy meditation "Dreams," stretched to ecstatic length by an extraordinary Trucks bottleneck reverie in which long, vocal-like notes materialized from a fuzzy ocean of sustain. The full-blown "Mountain Jam" that emerged from the extended drum-army break suddenly, on Haynes' cue, braked and veered into Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" -- with Trucks, Jaimoe and Quinones tumbling in tandem like three John Bonhams -- then U-turned back into "Mountain Jam." Frankly, this night belonged to Trucks. Allman, who can sometimes appear sidelined by the instrumental prowess of the rest of the band, came alive vocally in the encore, a cover of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Turn On Your Lovelight." And Haynes was in fine, muscular form; near the end of his solo in "Rockin' Horse," he skid into a thrilling patch of hammered-staccato squeals, as if he was broadcasting from the middle of the live "Spoonful" on Cream's Wheels of Fire. But Trucks repeatedly wowed with singing solos and exchanges with Haynes that combined golden tone, slalom-raga flow and near-human incantation with a seamless, luminous grace.
The guest list on stage included pedal-steel guitarist Robert Randolph and a short, steamy intermission set by what is best described as Gov't Meters -- Haynes and the rest of his band Gov't Mule with guitarist Leo Nocentelli and percussionist Cyril Neville of the Meters. But the action that mattered most always flowed between brothers. At the Beacon, the Allmans played like a band bonded by blood, history and a life-long love of chance. May their road go on forever -- through this room, this time every year.